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JUAN WILLIAMS: What You Need to Know About the First GOP Debate -- And What I Need From You

What a week for politics. Usama bin Laden is dead. Even the president’s boldest Republican critics – read that as former Vice President Cheney – have expressed admiration for the Obama administration’s ability to locate and kill America’s number one enemy.

But the 2012 presidential campaign is already underway with a field of Republican candidates taking shape. And that is where your faithful Fox News political analyst needs your help. I want you to send me questions for the candidates who will be on stage for the first debate of the GOP primary season.

The debate will be on the Fox News Channel this Thursday night, May 5 at 9 p.m. E.T.

I, along with my colleagues Bret Bair, Chris Wallace and Shannon Bream, will be quizzing the GOP candidates on a wide range of foreign and domestic policy issues. As the first round in the fight for the nomination this meeting will set the tone for the rest of the campaign. The primary field is having a hard time taking shape despite the fact that 80 percent of Republicans disapprove of President Obama’s performance in office.

So, I am asking for you to come up with the sharpest questions. Please send them to: foxforum@foxnews.com.
As you think about those questions, as a public service from your Fox News political analyst, here is all you need to know – your official scorecard.

Number one, don’t be fooled by the line-up. All the players will not be on the field Thursday. First here’s a list of the candidates who will be suiting up and appearing on the field: Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Gary Johnson

One unique aspect of this debate is that for millions of Americans, even the most ardent Republicans, it will be the first time they have seen or heard these candidates.

Pawlenty will be the most plausible candidate for the nomination on stage Thrusday night. The former Minnesota governor’s calm and reasoned demeanor will set him apart from the far-right firebrands who will be on stage. His biggest challenge will be to resist the temptation to be pulled too far to the right. 

Santorum, Paul and Cain will undoubtedly be throwing rhetorical red meat to the South Carolina audience. Pawlenty has never shown the ability to compete with any of them as a performer and a showman. His strength is a good record of conservative policies from his tenure as governor of Minnesota. If he simply gives direct answers to the questions and does not get drawn into the contest for who can be the most outrageous conservative provocateur, it might be enough to make him a winner.

For the other four candidates on the stage the big debate is their best chance so far to make a winning impression on GOP voters. One of them could have a very big night and become the leader of the pack. 

GOP primary voters tend to be more conservative just as Democratic primary voters tend to be more liberal. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer are generally far to the right and wildcards. Their unabashed rhetoric might spark an Internet sensation and appeal to the voters who are want a GOP nominee who is the antithesis of politics as usual.

But will the lesser-known candidates know how to handle foreign policy questions? Can they demonstrate knowledge of economic issues? Send in those questions.

Now, here’s a list of candidates who will not be appearing on Thursday night: Michelle Bachmann, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin all will not be attending. Bachmann, Gingrich and Romney have been clear about their interest in pursuing the nomination. Daniels, Huckabee, Palin and Trump have been clearly hesitant to officially jump into the fray.

It’s my belief that Romney, the biggest star in the group, is not coming because he wants the Republican faithful, especially people with big money, to come to him out of frustration with a mediocre field and give him the nomination by acclamation.

But he knows that if he shows up he’ll be targeted by all the other candidates who want to bring down the biggest player. And he will have to endure question after question from the Fox team and his opponents about creating a universal health care plan in Massachusetts that closely mirrors the president’s controversial health care reform plan. So his strategy is to let the little guys fight it out before they get to challenge him.

If Gingrich showed up he will have to answer questions from all sides about his flip-flops on U.S. intervention in Libya

Daniels knows he’d be pressed to explain why ending funding for Planned Parenthood in Indiana last week was not just a crass effort to make up with social conservatives after saying that social issues should not be the focus of this year’s Republican primary. 

And Bachmann is worried about being buried under demands for her to explain incorrect statements such as the claim that the federal government controls more than half of the American economy and the American Revolution started in New Hampshire. 

And of course, Donald Trump would have to answer uncomfortable questions about having pursued the birther question to the detriment of the Republican Party.

In 2008, by the time of the first primary debate, all of the major candidates had declared their intentions and showed up for the first debate. John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee went into the debate with their campaigns in full swing. Even the lesser-known candidates -- Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Tommy Thompson, and Jim Gilmore – had made several trips to the early primary states and were in campaign mode. Only former Senator Fred Thompson waited several months to get into the race and found himself unable to catch up to the other candidates.

The 2012 season is off to a late start but it will be a spirited one. The other potential candidates will be watching. With the death of Usama Bin Laden, one wonders if any of the Republican candidates will be less enthusiastic about the getting the opportunity to take on the commander-in-chief this time around.

What are your thoughts? Put on your thinking caps and let me see those questions!

Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It." Watch Juan and his Fox News colleagues Chris Wallace and Shannon Bream at the first GOP debate of the 2012 campaign on Fox News Channel, Thursday, May 5 at 9 p.m. ET.

Juan Williams joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1997 as a contributor and is also a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities. Additionally, he serves as FNC's political analyst, a regular panelist on "Fox News Sunday" and "Special Report with Bret Baier" and is a regular substitute host for "The O'Reilly Factor."